The tough guy's portable PC

Tech Culture

What's the polar opposite of a pink Razr? Probably the Switchback rugged ultra-mobile PC.

Unlike Motorola's sleek and shiny portable consumer gadget, this clunky handheld computer with its hard rubber grips and tough plastic casing isn't available to the masses, and it's fair to say the Switchback prizes function over fashion. It was made to withstand the elements: extreme temperatures (currently 41 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit), submersion in water, high-pressure spray, and of course, general human clumsiness.

Black Diamond Advanced Technology's Switchback UMPC
Credit: Black Diamond Advanced

The Switchback was developed by Black Diamond Advanced Technology, a barely 2-year-old start-up composed of guided weapons engineers. Their specialty? Gun-hardened electronics, which is exactly what it sounds like: circuits and wiring that must survive being shot out of a cannon or accelerating to twice the speed of sound in .015 seconds.

The weapons-design experts at Black Diamond have focused their energies on building a a better ruggedized tablet PC. Panasonic's Toughbook was one of the first in the market in 1998. It was rugged all right, but it didn't have the connectivity that users--soldiers, public safety officials, and the freight, mining and timber industries--needed in one device, Black Diamond President Justin Dyster said in an interview.

For instance, army special operations might need a UMPC that can fit in the pocket of cargo pants and have RFID, satellite and Wi-Fi options. Police officers may want to be able to undock one device from their patrol car, and use the connected magnetic swipe card reader, breathalyzer, digital camera and biometric fingerprint reader loaded in the back of the Switchback when making a traffic stop. The customizable, modular back is what Dyster believes sets his company's rugged PC apart from others.

The parallel processing capability is also pretty nifty. Users can switch between Windows XP and Windows Mobile when running a graphics-intensive program, or simply checking e-mail. The result is a prolonged battery life, and Dyster says both operating systems can be run simultaneously or independently.

Due out at the end of the year, the Switchback will initially have a 1GHz Celeron processor; a 40GB-60GB removable rotating hard drive; 1GB of memory; a hot-swappable battery; Bluetooth; 802.11b/g; GPS; and a 5.6-inch touch screen that's always visible in sunlight. And it all comes in a 7.5-inch-by-5.5-inch, 3-pound package.

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